It feels redundant to say “this is a really good episode of Mad Men” because in my experience few of them are true stinkers. There have been elements I don’t like, particularly in Season 3, but usually my gripes are with individual episodes or story lines that never take up too much screen time. After what I thought was a lukewarm beginning, I think Season 5 has been excellent. “Mystery Date,” and “Signal 30,” were excellent, “Far Away Places” was good (Don and Megan irritated me for various reasons, which detracted from my opinion of the episode overall), and “At the Codfish Ball” is pretty excellent.
Most importantly, this is the seventh episode of the season. Episode Seven never ceases to shake things up in Mad Men, whether it’s a self-contained story or one that affects a larger arc. Season One’s “Red in the Face” had some good old fashioned one-upsmanship when Don puts Roger in his place for getting handsy with Betty (also known as the “Roger barfs up oysters and martinis in front of clients” episode). Season Two’s “The Gold Violin” is the second big blow to the foundation of the Draper marriage (the first being Betty’s discovery that Don has been privy to her psychiatry sessions) when Jimmy Barrett tells Betty about Don and Bobbie. Sadly, Season Three’s “Seven Twenty Three” does away with the trend of Episode Seven ending in vomit. But the episode broke linear narrative structure in a great and memorable way, as well as making Henry Francis a real player in the end of the Drapers’ marriage. And, “The Suitcase” in Season Four marked a triumphant return of vomit in one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of the whole show as Peggy watched Don really hit bottom. Long-term implications of “The Suitcase” include Don getting his fucking shit together.
This season just isn’t giving anyone a break. Joan is a newly single mom, Peggy has been striking out at work and with her boyfriend, Roger and Jane broke up, Don and Megan are pretty much a series of extreme mood swings, Sally is stuck in a big scary house with Grandma Pauline, and life is making a slow boa constrictor squeeze on Pete Campbell’s dignity. Really, Cosgrove is having the least trouble of anyone (or maybe Cooper, but who the fuck knows with Cooper).
Okay, to the actual episode. When I discussed this episode with a friend, we decided this episode might as well have been called “Grandmas Goin’ Down.” The episode opens on Sally making a verboten call to Creepy Glen while he’s away at what must be a boarding school for creepsters (also, he’s in trig? how old is he?). Grandma Pauline eats it by tripping on the phone cord, and the Draper kids have to go into the city to stay with their dad.
This surprise trip to Don and Megan’s coincides with a visit from Dr. Emile and Marie Calvet—Megan’s parents. Don and Megan have had some pretty weird problems this season, and there is no way they will be able to use Emile and Marie as a good model to draw upon. Emile has affairs with his grad students, Marie is a drunk and competes with her daughter for her male affection. Emile hates Don for porking his daughter and for being a fat cat (but his dig at how Don’s manners are “learned” feels like he almost accuses Don of being new money). When Emile explains to Bobby that he is a professor and not an MD, Don replies, “When you have a high degree in any field, they call you a doctor. It’s from the Middle Ages.” I didn’t read malice in Don’s tone here, but Emile may have:
But then again, maybe Don and Megan can use Emile and Marie as a negative example. This is one of the first episodes where they work effectively as partners without any squabbles. I mean, there are a lot of lovey-dovey marriage moments, but they have had at least one spat in every episode so far this season. The lowest-level tiff was “Signal 3o”‘s “do we HAVE to go to the Campbells’ house?”; then “you never wanna hang out with my friends, you old fart” in “Tea Leaves”; then “I’m embarrassed you were a man-slut with Shelly from the Double-R” in “Mystery Date”; last week’s blow-up at the HoJo and accompanying oogy chase scene through the apartment; and, of course, the premiere’s bizarre S&M-wtfuckery. But for some reason, when three generations occupy the same space, there is marital harmony at last in the Draper house—at least for Don and Megan.
In fact, having the Calvet parents and the Draper kids hanging around inspires Megan with one of those “holy shit” SCDP ideas about Heinz beans: a montage of mothers serving children beans from the stone age through the space age. We haven’t seen much of Megan’s work in creative so far, and she wants to downplay that she is responsible for the winning Heinz campaign. But the audience knows that Megan does some unwitting powder room espionage and together she and Don revive their business with Heinz. It is pretty amazing to watch them do the pitch together, if only because And let’s not forget that Heinz is only at SCDP because Dr. Faye Miller breached business ethics for lurve. Given how much trouble Heinz has caused in the conference room, Don and Megan practically broke a curse. (And celebrate by boning in the office!)
We have a quick insert from Roger and Mona (!). Roger has become incredibly zen-like in wake of his tripping balls last season. He meets with Mona as a scheme to get him an in with some of the people on the American Cancer Society board. His ambitions to toss his silver spoon are real.
After Drapering out last week, Peggy does a 180. She observes Megan’s big victory and seems genuinely happy for Megan. Abe insists they have dinner and she consults Joan, prays it’s a proposal, buys a new dress. Abe wants them to move in together and at first Peggy is obviously disappointed—when he asks her if she still wants to eat, she responds “I do” and gives a look vaguely reminiscent of Kitty Romano after watching Sal act out his Patio commercial.
And then…boom. Most of the characters in this episode attend the dinner celebrating Don receiving an award from the American Cancer Society (or whatever it’s called). Peggy, after becoming excited about moving in with Abe, decides to break the news to her mother over dinner. And since we all know Ma “You’ll Get Raped, Ya Know That?” Olson, we know it’s not going to end well. And it doesn’t. Joan gets it. At least there’s that.
Meanwhile, the awards dinner is a bloodbath for egos. Emile dumps all over Megan for giving up her ideals and dreams to be with Don (was she lying about being an actress?). But Emile’s also coping with his own failure to impress a publisher (and getting duped by Pete Campbell!!) Marie settles the score for Claudette by giving Roger a BJ. (Roger actually does pretty alright in this episode…he’s pretty much a pimp.) Leland Palmer tells Don that the Cancer people think he’s just as two-faced as the cigarette people.
At the awards dinner, Sally falls the hardest. She’s been lauded by her father for keeping Grandma Pauline comfortable, she’s the inspiration for, everyone notices for the first time what a beautiful and mature young lady she is, she gets to go on a date with Roger! Even through the course of the episode, Sally matures a little bit: Bobby says “Sally doesn’t like fish,” but she eats it at the awards dinner and switches “Daddy” for the upscale “Papa.” And then, of course, she sneaks a traumatizing peek of Grandma Marie blowing Roger. Seeing a mature woman go to town on your cool adult friend’s crotch would be traumatizing to the most stable of kids. But this is Sally Draper. We’ve seen Sally go through a lot overall, but there have been hints that her sexual development is going to be kind of fucked: in Season Four, she told Phoebe she knows what sex is because the man pees inside the woman and then get sent to a shrink for wanking at a slumber party. I guess it IS the 1960s, but I feel like the show brings these to light to show us that Sally is going to grow up to be pretty effed in the brain. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the show tacking on an ending beyond the Sad Table of Sadness, but having Sally say “It’s dirty” seems very important to her in upcoming episodes.
ADDENDUM: I thought about this after dinner. Is this episode a game-changer? Or is it threatening to keep the status quo? So many things were on the upswing and they got cut down, but not down to the roots.
And I HAVE to end on this: Sally + Roger 4-Eva